Tuesday, April 19, 2011

“People Like a Little Glamour”

Lifelong musical theatre geek Claire Willett interviews Christopher Stowell about her all-time favorite work in the OBT rep: Stowell’s sparkling, sexy, witty Cole Porter ballet Eyes On You.

Christopher Stowell. Photo by Joni Kabana.

What inspired Eyes On You?  How did you come up with the idea?
Well, the practical reason was doing something to recording [because of] not having finances for live music for that program.  We opened in the Newmark that year because of The Lion King, we got kicked out of the Keller . . . so there was no orchestra for that program . . . I needed to make a new ballet and I couldn’t use live music.  And my thing with recorded music is, if it’s a great, famous, vintage recording, and it’s something we can’t recreate now, then it’s fine.  Like, we had done Paul Taylor’s Company B, which is all Andrews Sisters recordings, so of course you do the recordings, you know – those are the people!  You know what I mean?  So I was looking for a composer that was fun, and that there were interesting recordings of their work, and I liked the idea of vocals in the program.  And then it took a turn when Pamela South said, “Oh my God, I love those songs, I would love to sing them,” and I said, “Well, we don’t have any money for you,” and she said, “Well, let’s not worry about that.”  But I had already gotten attached to some recordings, so I said, “How about we alternate between vintage recordings and live?”  Which is actually kind of cool, I think.

So were you, like, a lifelong Cole Porter fan?  I know you’re kind of an old-movies buff . . .
Not particularly Cole Porter – I discovered actually a lot of songs that I knew, that I didn’t –

That you didn’t know were Cole Porter?
Exactly, and I think we all do that, you know?  Like, “Oh, I love that song, who wrote that?  Cole Porter.”  You could say that about, like, eight hundred times.  He wrote ‘em all.  (Laughs) I don’t remember, but it’s possible that I was not even attached to necessarily Cole Porter strictly in the beginning, but then I saw the wealth of great songs.  And what’s really good is that there are a lot of recordings that are not all the same – they’re not all from the same period, they’re not all necessarily sung.  Like, “Begin the Beguine” in the ballet is a non-vocal version.  “Night and Day” is usually a slow song, but the recording we have of it is fast.  So you can have all Cole Porter but you can also have it from different eras and different approaches. 

Who picked the music?
I picked all the recordings myself, and then picked songs where I couldn’t find  . . . recordings that were danceable, or that I felt like were going to fit in, and those were the things Pamela ended up singing because we could adjust the tempo, take out the bridge, or whatever.

Christopher Stowell's Eyes On You. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

One of the things that really struck me the first time I saw it was how cinematic it feels, with the “The End” marquee and the costumes – was that a deliberate choice or did it evolve as you were working?
I honestly don’t remember exactly the route to that particular idea.  What I do remember is just liking the idea of some stereotypical characters, or notions, or situations that happen in those Hollywood movie musicals of the 30’s and 40’s.  Like, there’s frequently a bellhop, and there’s often girls that are secretaries on their lunch break.  And Latin locales, themes and rhythms were really popular then, so, you know, non-Latin people doing rhumbas and sambas and feeling really sexy is also in all of those movies, frequently.  So there’s that in there.  The actual marquee – I think that the very first image I had that included the seats was being ironic and starting at the end of something.  And what would people be going to in the 30’s and 40’s?  They’d be going to the movies.

You mentioned the rhumbas and the sambas, and there are so many different other kinds of non-ballet dance that are sort of incorporated throughout –
Yeah, I guess because it’s natural to those rhythms to want to move in a social dance way.  I have actually no social dance training, so everything that’s in there I made up based on some feeling of, like, “Isn’t this kind of like one of those things?”  (Laughs)  There was one social dance that I had somebody teach me and I can’t remember who it was – it’s in “Begin the Beguine,” the main step in that –

That one’s legit?
Yeah, that one’s legit.  The rest I made up.

It’s like the Christopher Stowell version of a foxtrot.
Exactly.  If you wiggle your hips, it’s a mambo.  (Laughs)  

Alison Roper and Ronnie Underwood in Christopher Stowell's Eyes On You. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert

So what’s your choreographic process for a work like this?  Anne talked about it a little in her interview from her perspective as a dancer; what’s it like from your end?
Well, this one in particular, the structure of it was comforting, or non-scary, in that it’s episodic – it’s a bunch of numbers.  And each number – there should be an arc, but it doesn’t have to be an arc of logic, it needs to be an arc of aesthetic or style, or at least highs and lows that feel like you’re on a little bit of a journey or whatever, but they’re each separate numbers.  So I thought, “Who are the principal characters in this?” and then assigned the characters and the dancers I had in mind to particular songs.  And then that process makes me feel comfortable; it’s like not having to think about, I don’t know, like reading all of War and Peace.  It’s just a chapter, so everybody calm down.  It’s just a chapter at a time.  

Baby steps.
Exactly!  Baby steps, yeah.  And then I decided, “Okay, I’m gonna pick a song, and it’s gonna be a song that I associate with Anne, and that’s just gonna be how we get started.”  So I’d get in a room with her, with a song that I feel like is about her or for her, and just see what comes up.

Is that different from how you’d choreograph something like Rite of Spring with the bigger arc to it? 
No, actually.  Rite of Spring scared the shit out of me – unlike, you know, ten cute Cole Porter tunes.  (Laughs)  And I started the process exactly the same way, to calm myself down.

Break it into little chunks.
Break it into chunks, and get one person in the room – Anne, let’s say – and let’s make something up.  Because as soon as I have something to work with, I feel better.  When I feel like I have to come up with thirty-five minutes of steps, I’m like, “Oh my God . . .”

Anne Mueller in Christopher Stowell's Eyes On You. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

When it’s like, staring you in the face and you’re like, “Holy crap.”
Yes!  Exactly.  So it’s like, “Okay, let’s make two steps, and then we’ll make four steps . . .”

One of the things I like about Eyes on You is that it’s so funny – I feel like that’s something that comes through in a lot of the works in our rep.  Is that something that you like in your work?
Yeah, definitely.  I do like to do that.  But I like to mostly make situations that can be funny, and not say, “Here, do this gag,” and “Here, do that gag,” overtly.  There are some gags in this – there are, but they need to be done subtly.  I didn’t want it packed with one spit-take after another.  Like, that’s too much.

Slapstick, yeah.  But it also makes sense with both the music and the aesthetic that inspired the thing, because those movies often were comedies, so I like the funny situation more than the fall-down-on-your-face stuff.

Did you watch a lot of the old 40’s movies when you were a kid?  Did you grow up with that aesthetic?
Fred Astaire movies, for sure.  Fred and Ginger stuff.  My father is a huge fan of all of those movies – Gene Kelly, the whole genre.  Yeah.  So I did grow up seeing those.  But then I actually got my hands on – I can’t remember what they were now – some movies that I did not know that were Cole Porter scores.  And that was actually helpful because they were kind of obscure, so, I mean, they were probably fun at the time but they’re not classics, you know what I mean?  But it gave me some insight into different situations than the ones we remember all the time.  They were so specific, you know – they did a lot of, like, they’re in a war, or they’re stuck in Panama . . .

The catalog is just huge.

The number of things he wrote –
They must have churned them out, those movies.  Like, make it in two weeks, boom, let’s go.

Did you do musical theatre as a kid?
Nope.  I would have been happy to, though.  I acted a little bit when I was a kid, before I started ballet, in school.  I did do Annie, Get Your Gun.  Yes.  I was Little Jake in Annie, Get Your Gun.  If I’d had any kind of voice I would have preferred doing that, frankly.  Way more fun.

More fun than ballet?
Yeah!  Ballet’s hard!  It’s a lot of work!  (Laughs)

And there’s no jazz hands in ballet.
No jazz hands!  I know! 

Anne Mueller and company in Christopher Stowell's Eyes On You. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Eyes On You is such an audience favorite.  Why do you think people respond to it so much?
I hate to use the word “accessible,” but I think the thing that scares people sometimes about dance is “I don’t get it,” and there’s no question of not getting it, really.  Well, actually – once, I forget if it was a review or if it was someone talking to me, but they said, “I don’t get why they’re in their underwear,” and I’m like, “Uh, it’s funny.  That’s it.  That’s the end of the story.”  “Well, if they were in the movies they wouldn’t be in their underwear!” And I’m like, “Um, you’re thinking way too hard.” (Laughs)  Like, it’s madcap.  Whatever.  What was the question?  Oh, accessibility.  Right.  So, comfort level – I think it makes people relaxed, like, “I get this genre.”  I think a lot of people like a little glamour too, and it has beautiful costumes that move a lot.  And all of that also makes the dancers relax, and I think audiences get to see maybe more personality than they might in other [ballets], which is more appropriate in this, too.  And it’s very infectious music, too.  You feel yourself snapping your fingers a little bit, like, “I know the words to this song.”  It’s just fun.

What’s your favorite Cole Porter song?  Do you have a personal favorite?
My favorite recording in the show is the first one, “De-Lovely,” because it’s really, really clever – the lyrics are really clever.  You know what’s really good – it’s not in the show – is, how does it go?  (singing unintelligibly under his breath) Oh, it’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall In Love.” Brilliant lyrics, so funny.  I almost used a recording of Alanis Morissette singing that [from the film De-Lovely], but it kind of fluctuates tempo a lot – so you’re like dancing dancing dancing, “Wait, why is she slowing down?” [EDITOR’S NOTE: Rather than transcribe for you the next 5 minutes where we geeked out about the De-Lovely soundtrack, I’ll just give you the link and tell you that Christopher’s favorite track is “True Love” sung by Ashley Judd, and mine is “Night and Day” sung by Kevin Kline with John Barrowman of Doctor Who and Torchwood fame.  Now back to our regularly-scheduled programming.]

So how does the process change, now that you’re doing it again with different dancers?
Honestly, with a ballet like this, it is a little – not “challenging,” but there’s another dimension to it.  Because you want, if not the same, a similar, equally effective effect, and people are different people with different bodies and different personalities.  So I probably adjust things in this more than I would in something else, because the point is the ultimate effect and not the individual steps, necessarily, or where to put the emphasis of either a gag, or a romantic look, or whatever like that. But I do get attached in something like this more than in other things, like, “You’re not doing that thing that so-and-so did that was so funny!”  But then I have to step back and go, “They can’t be that person.” And I’ve found that asking them to do something that was basically an inspired moment by one dancer, asking another dancer to do it is usually not effective.  It wouldn’t feel natural to them.

So what made you decide to bring it back for this season, and how does it fit in with the other pieces in Song & Dance?
Well, we brought it back because, you know, marketing directors are always happy.  Like, “Give me something that’s gonna sell a lot of tickets!”  (Laughs)  In this particular program – so Square Dance wasn’t on the program yet when I planned it because we added it later.  [With Left Unsaid and Speak], well, I don’t know if “heavy” is the right word, but there’s some darkness and some earthbound-ness and some seriousness about those works that needed some complementing with something light.

How did you come up with the name Eyes On You?  It’s not in any of the songs in the piece.
The naming of the piece was actually fun.  I was choreographing it during OBT Exposed!, when we had the tent in the park in the fall, and I think we showed some Cole Porter movies in the evening and had some popcorn, to sort of get people who were interested in the ballet focused on Cole Porter and the process of creating this new work.  And then I think I had to give a lecture one night, and I hadn’t come up with a name for the piece, and I said, “Well, I’ll throw it out to the audience.”  There were maybe fifty people there, and everyone wrote down their thought for a name for the piece and we collected them, and – it was actually longer, it was “Eyes on blah blah blah blah blah something,” but I read all of them, all those little slips of paper and then saw that one.  And I reduced it, edited it a little bit, and liked it, and got in touch with that person, and they got credit and free tickets to the ballet.

That’s awesome.
Yeah.  I like the title.  People have said, you know, is it “Eyes On You” or I-apostrophe-S, like “I’s on you?”  (Laughs)

It works on so many levels.


Song & Dance, featuring Eyes On You is at the Newmark Theatre April 21 - May 1.

more posts about Song & Dance | Buy Tickets to Song & Dance

Friday, April 15, 2011

Your Daily Dance Break: Yo Yo Ma and Lil Buck

It seems we are not the only ones creating a little classical/hip hop fusion. Check out this extraordinary video of famed cellist Yo Yo Ma collaborating with hip hop dance artist Lil Buck on a brief improvised performance piece.

We present this in honor of our sister organization Portland Center Stage's opening night performance of Opus. Break legs, guys! Or, as we say in the dance world, "Merd."

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Gargouillade and Entrechat: the Filigree Footwork of Square Dance

by Linda Besant

“More steps per minute than any other show in town,” said dance writer Nancy Reynolds of Square Dance. For fifty years, audiences have been wowed by this non-stop ballet:

“Tempos that could only be called lickety-split.” (Manchester, 1958)
 “Filigree footwork that requires the most astonishing technical dexterity.” (Kaplan, 1988)
“The speed of the footwork…could be compared to breaking the four-minute mile.” (Vranish, 2007) 

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Carrie Imler and Lucien Postlewaite with company dancers in Square Dance, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo © Angela Sterling
Patricia Wilde, on whom the principal role in Square Dance was created in 1957, described Balanchine's emphasis on the foot in this kind of choreography. “From the moment it left the floor, the foot had to draw the eye to it -- we really worked on that." Under Balanchine's direction, less time was spent in plié or in preparing for a movement. "Don't sit there and have a cup of coffee," he would say, pushing for accents that were out and up. Square Dance “has a terrific bounce and a very unique drive. It was a joyous experience. Mr. B wanted it to be fun.”
Merrill Ashley, who took on Square Dance in 1977, remains among the most acclaimed ballerinas to accomplish the principal role. "The ballet was filled with fast footwork, jumps, and beats, all part of the standard classical ballet vocabulary, but the steps had to be done in a much freer and more spontaneous way than in most 'classical' ballets. A joyful I-love-to-dance approach was needed . . . Many of the steps seemed to have their own momentum, which swept me along, and I felt in perfect harmony with the music and choreography."     

OBT’s Ballet Master Lisa Kipp taught Square Dance to the company. She performed it with Ballet Chicago in the 1990s. “It’s one of my best memories, and the music is beautiful,” Lisa says, “but it was the most exhausted I ever got, ever, You have to reach down into the depths and pull something out if you’re going to get to the end of the ballet. You hit the wall and go past it. There’s a weird euphoria to that.”

Here are a couple of examples of the allegro steps and jumps in Square Dance that dancers find most challenging:

Gargouillade: (literally means gurgling or rumbling) Both legs execute a rond de jambe in l’air (circle of the legs in the air) almost simultaneously, while the body is in the air. “Like a kitten with tape stuck to its paws,” says OBT dancer Andrea Cooper.
This video excerpt of Pacific Northwest Ballet's Square Dance rehearsal shows Carrie Imler tossing off her gargouillades with ease. She does the first gargouillade at the very beginning of the video, and the corps repeat her movement in the next moment.

Long strings of échappés interwoven with entrechats six        
Échappé: An escaping or slipping movement where the feet go from a closed to an open position, both sauté (jumping the feet apart), and sur les pointes (on the toes).
Entrechat six: Interweaving or braiding. A step of beating in which the dancer jumps into the air and rapidly crosses the legs before and behind each other.

Christopher Stowell says, “It’s not so much that these steps are hard but that there are so many of them.” Damara Bennett, Director of the School of OBT, adds, “It’s relentless, and exhilarating.”

To see demonstrations of échappé and entrachat so that you can recognize them in the finale of Square Dance, visit American Ballet Theatre's Online dance dictionary.

more posts about Song & Dance | Buy Tickets to Song & Dance

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Six Degrees of Cole Porter

By Claire Willett

Cole Porter

“Six Degrees of Separation” is a statistical theory model which suggests that every human being on earth is connected to every other human being on earth through no more than six other people. That is beyond the scope of this undertaking, so we’re going to stick with its far-less-weighty spinoff, the pop-culture parlor game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” which adapts this model to suggest that any Hollywood actor can be connected to movie star Kevin Bacon through no more than six movies. Bacon, a true Renaissance man (actor, director, musician, writer, producer) is a prolific Hollywood workhorse with over 70 movies to his name, in many different genres, which means has amassed a staggering array of celebrity co-stars, which is why the game works.

Kevin Bacon in Footloose

You may be skeptical. “Sure, it would work with Rob Lowe or Demi Moore,” you say, “but what about someone like, say, Orson Welles?”

Orson Welles

Easy! Orson Welles was in the original Casino Royale with Ursula Andress who was in Clash of the Titans with Laurence Olivier who was in Dracula with Frank Langella who was in Frost/Nixon with Kevin Bacon. BACON SCORE = 4.

Kevin Bacon is all well and good, but if we want to talk about the ultimate Renaissance man we must go back to singer/songwriter/pianist/musical theatre composer/social butterfly Cole Porter, who seemed to know every even remotely famous person in the first half of the 20th century. The hottest silver screen stars sang and danced in his films and Broadway shows; celebrity composers and artists hung out at his lavish cocktail parties. He defined an entire era with his witty lyrics and champagne-sparkling melodies, and the reverberations of his impact on popular music and culture are still felt today. Was there anyone worth knowing in 1920’s Paris that Cole Porter never shared a drink with? Not by my reckoning. In honor of our upcoming Cole Porter-themed ballet “Eyes On You,” I’d like to test that theory with a little game called “Six Degrees of Cole Porter.” Stop scrolling as you make your guesses - the solution is right below the image.  (If you figure out a way to get there in fewer moves, post it in the comments.)

Ready? Let’s play!

6 MOVES: Black Swan star Natalie Portman 

Natalie Portman in Black Swan


Natalie Portman was in Closer with Julia Roberts who was in Ocean’s Eleven with Elliott Gould who was in The Muppet Movie with James Coburn who was in Charade with Cary Grant who was in The Philadelphia Story with Jimmy Stewart who was in Born To Dance with a score by Cole Porter.

5 MOVES: Film and Musical Theatre Actor Hugh Jackman 

Hugh Jackman


Hugh Jackman did voice-over work for Happy Feet with Robin Williams who was in Dead Poet’s Society with Robert Sean Leonard who stars on House with Hugh Laurie who was in Jeeves and Wooster written by PG Wodehouse who wrote the book to Anything Goes with Cole Porter.

4 MOVES: First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt was married to Franklin Delano Roosevelt who was succeeded in the Oval Office by Harry Truman whose Secretary of State was Dean Acheson who was roommates at Harvard Law School with Cole Porter.

3 MOVES: Fashion Designer Coco Chanel 

Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel had an affair with Igor Stravinsky who composed Firebird for the Ballets Russe who were once hired to perform at an extravagant private ball in Venice by Cole Porter.

2 MOVES: Who’s the Boss star Tony Danza 

Tony Danza

Tony Danza was in the Laughing With the Presidents TV special with Bob Hope who was in Red, Hot and Blue written by Cole Porter.

1 MOVE: Fred Astaire 

Fred Astaire


Fred Astaire starred in Gay Divorce written by Cole Porter.

Want to take a stab at it? Try connecting Cole Porter and OBT Artistic Director Christopher Stowell. Yes, it can be done, we’ve tested it! The first person who posts a comment below doing it in the fewest number of moves by April 15th (feel free to be creative!) will win a pair of tickets to Song & Dance. Post your ideas below in the comments!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Why Do We Do What We Do?

Thanks so much to everyone who helped to make Saturday Night's Moveable Feast Gala such a success! If you weren't able to join us, take a moment to check out this short video sharing why we do what we do...

If you would like to contribute to OBT's Education and Outreach opportunities, please contact Emily at emily.tucker@obt.org.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Yoga and Ballet: Finding the flow in "Left Unsaid"

By OBT Historian Linda Besant

Are Locusts and Downward Facing Dogs a regular part of your life? If so, then you won’t want to miss seeing Left Unsaid in OBT’s “Song and Dance” program that opens April 21st. Choreographer Nicolo Fonte is a devoted practitioner of Iyengar yoga, and his ballet is rich with artistically extended poses.

We asked Julie Gudmestad, one of Portland’s premier yoga instructors, to take a look at Left Unsaid and weigh in on this seamless melding of Eastern and Western physicality. Julie has movement credentials that just won’t quit—she graduated as a physical therapist in 1977, and she’s been certified as an Iyengar instructor since 1988; but we didn’t know until we asked for her help that she also studied classical ballet as a girl, and was a serious student of modern dance at Reed College.

Julie knew of worldwide movements of rhythmic yoga and yoga choreography, but said right away that Left Unsaid is different. Those ways of moving are built exclusively from poses, or asanas. “In formal practice,” Julie said, “it’s pretty prescribed how you go into and out of each pose, especially in Iyengar yoga. What’s so refreshing about Left Unsaid are the creative and organic ways that Nicolo Fonte coils into and on through each pose. In yoga practice, we form vinyasas, or flowing combinations of asanas. One definition of the Sanskrit word vinyasa is wind, and you can see the wind in this piece. People who practice these poses will be delighted at the way this choreography flows.”

Julie also complimented OBT’s dancers. “It is a real treat," she said, “to see people in such fabulous shape, who have both the flexibility and the strength to do the extreme forms of these poses." In fact, many of OBT's dancers regularly practice yoga. 

We picked a part of Left Unsaid where the yoga is particularly clear, and Julie pointed out places where the choreography lingers on poses long enough to see them clearly, though they are often varied or ornamented slightly. You will see:

Warrior I Virabhadrasana I
Bridge Setu Bandha Sarvangasana
Boat Navasana
Locust Salabasana
Staff Pose (Plank) Dandasana
Standing Big Toe Pose Uhita Hasta Padangustasana

Can you spot these asanas as they flow by?

Julie Gudmestad practices physical therapy and teaches yoga with her team of nine instructors at Gudmestad Yoga Studio. You can also see her work in the Yoga Journal online, where she wrote the "Anatomy of a Yogi" column for seven years.

Love yoga? Show us your own best yoga move by posting a pic on our Facebook Wall and you'll be entered to win tickets to Song & Dance. We'll pick a winner Friday April 15th. GO.

Tickets to Song & Dance

more posts about Song & Dance
| Buy Tickets to Song & Dance

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Nicolo Fonte Discusses Left Unsaid with Dance Magazine

(Anne Mueller, Artur Sultanov, Brian Simcoe and Steven Houser in Nicolo Fonte's
Left Unsaid. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert)

Wendy Perrin from Dance Magazine recently sat down with choreographer Nicolo Fonte to discuss his approach to choreography and his current most popular work, Left Unsaid, which will be presented as part of our spring program, Song & Dance.

Check out the interview here.

You can watch a full sneak peek video of Left Unsaid here:

more posts about Song & Dance
| Buy Tickets to Song & Dance

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Daily Dance Break: Sand Painting

Your Daily Dance Break: In honor of Anne's "sand ninja" blog post, a mesmerizing sand painting performance. The way the artist shapes the sand to music is like watching a choreographed dance... don't you think?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Daily Dance Break: A Different Kind of Street Dance Battle

Here's a little taste of the kind of street dance battles that are referenced in Trey McIntyre's Speak, which is part of our Song & Dance program opening April 20th.

more posts about Song & Dance
| Buy Tickets to Song & Dance

The Life and times of Anne Mueller Part Five: "It Was like Being a Ninja"

OBT staff members Linda Besant and Claire Willett sat down with Principal Dancer Anne Mueller (who retires from the stage and transitions to our artistic staff in May) to interview her about her life and career. Over the next few days we’ll be sharing with you some of her stories and anecdotes – from her childhood as a touring ballet dancer, to the craziest photo shoot she ever worked on, to how she ended up living on a farm full of goats. Stay tuned for this behind-the-scenes peek at the life of one of OBT’s most engaging, colorful and unique personalities.

by Claire Willett

Anne Mueller and John Michael Schert for Trey McIntyre Project. Photo by Jonas Lundqvist.

Anne Mueller and John Michael Schert for Trey McIntyre Project. Photo by Jonas Lundqvist.

Photo shoots are part of the package when you’re a professional ballet dancer; compelling, arresting images that show off the grace and physicality of the company’s dancers are part of every marketing staff’s standard bag of tricks. Anne Mueller has done her fair share of photo shoots for OBT, but the craziest shoot of her life actually happened in summer of 2004 with the as-yet-barely-in-existence Trey McIntyre Project.

“Trey had been a good friend of mine for a very long time,” says Anne. At the time, he was working as a freelance choreographer making work on many different companies, but “He was craving an opportunity to work with a consistent group of dancers of his choosing,” she explains, “while also not yet wanting to take on the directorship of a full-time company.” It began with a series of phone conversations Anne had with Trey and his partner John Michael Schert; Anne and John Michael had never met in person before they all decided collectively to join forces and collaborate on this process. “We decided to go for it,” Anne says, “so the first question was, ‘Where do we start?’” The answer? A photo shoot. “We came to the conclusion that the first thing we really needed were images,” she says. “If we’re going to sell people on a company that doesn’t exist, we need some good, striking images to give them some sort of idea what this whole thing’s going to be about.” After a not-so-successful initial attempt, Anne flew out to New York on a red-eye for a second attempt at the critical photo shoot (“I think I was there for maybe 48 hours, tops”) as well as discussions about how to create a fundraising strategic plan and marketing materials.

Jonas Lundqvist, a Finnish photographer who had danced with Pennsylvania Ballet, had flown out from Finland to New York to do the shoot, but the location and concept remained elusive. There was a lot at stake – the images had to capture and define the aesthetic of a company that didn’t technically exist yet, and inspire presenters to take a chance on them. They did some trial shots on rooftops and on the streets of New York City, trying to get passersby to react; “but nobody there reacts,” says Anne, “so that wasn’t very fun.” Somehow – she can’t remember how it was decided or who thought of it – they settled on doing the shoot at the beach. So they drove an hour from Brooklyn to Queens to do the shoot at Rockaway Beach.

The costume element for the shoot hadn’t been finalized beforehand; Anne kept asking Trey what to wear and he kept telling her he wanted them both in what she describes as “people clothes.” But Anne, convinced that when push came to shove Trey would change his mind, was prepared. “I did bring some people clothes, but I kept thinking, ‘He’s probably going to want more body than that.’ So I just made sure that I had on a good pair of black underwear.” On the beach, under the hot August sun, Anne stripped down to her black camisole and underwear to get a little sun; when Trey saw her he said, “Oh, actually that outfit’s really good.” (MORAL OF THE STORY: Always wear good underwear to photo shoots, just in case. I’m pretty sure I’ve actually seen that on America’s Next Top Model.)

The actual shooting began around three in the afternoon, and at first it was stressful and nerve-wracking. Anne and John Michael had never met prior to the trip, “but suddenly he and I were thrust into what’s actually a very personal and vulnerable situation –improvisational dancing with somebody for a camera at close range under high pressure.” Initially Jonas shot them both individually and as a pair, and Anne says “we were both just kind of stumbling through.” They shot for about five hours under intense strain, and then the sun started to set, creating additional pressure to get it right before the light was gone. Towards the end, she says, “I think John Michael and I had worked ourselves to a place of frustration to where we were ready to just abandon ourselves, which I think really shows in these images – we’re just absolutely throwing it all out there.”

Trey came up with the idea to make the most out of the great sunset light and take advantage of the little time they had left, and told Anne and John-Michael, “Okay, you start on this side, and you start on this side, and run towards each other, and when you’re in front of the camera, do something.” “We didn’t plan what we were going to do,” Anne says, “we just ran.” They did this rapid-fire for a long, long time, says Anne – it was “Run! Do something! Run! Do something!” over and over. “I’m very proud of these pictures because they’re just crazy,” Anne says. “There’s nothing being held back by either one of us. But we also have really contrasting qualities: he’s a very long, elegant and lyrical dancer, and I’m more power-oriented and kind of snappy.” Anne’s favorite shot of John Michael was one where “he threw himself into a fetal position perfectly sideways to the ground and then just collapsed on the sand. Unfortunately they asked him to do it again, which I think he regretted because it hurt! But that was kind of a wonderful thing about the sand – we could hit the ground in a way that you really can’t on a normal type of surface, so we were able to do things we wouldn’t have been able to do elsewhere.” Her favorite shot of herself? “There’s one where I’m jumping up and my legs are basically just in fifth, a little bit of a pike, and I had sand in my hands, and I threw it right as I jumped, and the sand makes this gorgeous X pattern in the sky in front of me. It felt like being a ninja or something!”

Anne Mueller for Trey McIntyre Project. Photo by Jonas Lundqvist.

The shoot went on for a long, long time, she says, “and we captured a lot of really powerful images.” You’d never know from looking at the photos now that “it was one of the most gross and grueling experiences of my dance career. . . we had sand in every possible place sand could be, you know,” she laughs, “and then we had to sit in a car, sweaty and sandy and disgusting, to drive an hour back to Brooklyn.” But it was worth it. The shoot inspired the concept for the next few TMP seasons as well; the following year Trey shot the dancers himself in the water, and then the following year the concept was Air.

Anne remains incredibly proud of that first shoot on the beach. “I really love those pictures,” she says. “I feel like the power of those images did what it needed to do to give that company a start. They had to be powerful enough to make presenters want to take a chance on something that didn’t exist. That’s got to be something pretty tangible. Trey’s reputation obviously speaks for itself, but really to sell somebody on something in a visual art form, you’ve got to have something visual. And I think that branding-wise, that really set the tone for what that company was going to be like and how it was going to speak its message to the community.”

Are you an Anne fan? What do you think is Anne’s most recognizable, iconic role? Post your thoughts below in the comments!

More Celebrating Anne Stories | All About Anne | Tickets to Song & Dance

Friday, April 1, 2011

"It's Really a Street Brawl"

 Former OBT dancer Matthew Boyes shares his memories of Speak, Trey McIntyre’s ballet set to a spoken-word piece by Tracie Morris and the hip-hop music of The Bloodhound Gang.

Vanessa Thiessen and Matthew Boyes in the world premiere of Trey McIntyre's Speak.
Oregon Ballet Theatre, 1998. Photo by David Straub.
By Claire Willett

How was the piece conceived?
Speak was created on Vanessa Thiessen and myself when OBT was still [performing] in the former Masonic Temple, now the new wing of the Portland Art Museum.  Trey had already choreographed Like a Samba [on OBT dancers] and I believe this was his second piece for the company.  It is a true reflection of pop culture at that time.  Both Trey and James Canfield were always inspired and intrigued by contemporary life.  Rap music and hip-hop had already been around for a number of years, but spoken word was just coming out.  Spoken word [had] a more urban/intellectual vibe; people would go to coffee houses and act like modern-day beat poets of sorts.

What was Trey’s vision for the piece?
He really made the duet . . . a conversation between two people.  He would never talk about what to [think] while dancing this.  Every movement [he] choreographed expressed exactly what he wanted, without him [needing to waste] words on explanation.  [The piece is so] different from most classical dance in that there is no love story told between the man and woman.

What was it like to dance Speak?
When we would rehearse he pushed us to our physical extremes, traversing the stage from end to end. For me, if the choreography called for a gesture or kick, it had to start from a thought and explode as a movement.  The duet is really a "street brawl" between two friends.  [It’s] a battle of the sexes with the girl kicking the guy’s butt – literally and figuratively – in the end . . . The female solo was just raw movement, and looked nothing like ballet.  Of course it takes a trained dancer to make this type of dance really look tight and fierce . . . After dancing Speak I would want to just lay on the floor and catch my breath, but as soon as I rolled offstage I knew I would have to turn around and run out for the bow.

SPEAK - excerpt from Trey McIntyre Project on Vimeo.

How did audiences receive it?
The audience would always go insane with applause!  People really liked it.  Usually it would be sandwiched in the middle of the evening's program [and] the other ballets would be more “balletic,” so the contrast would really surprise and wake up the audience.

On Anne Mueller
I would like to congratulate Anne Mueller on her many years with both James and Christopher at the helm of the company.  Her personal integrity and work ethic, not to mention her beauty, have stood as an excellent example for [several] generations of dancers. Thank you, Anne, for your friendship and unstoppable drive. 

more posts about Song & Dance
| Buy Tickets to Song & Dance

Your Daily Dance Break: A Very Special Guest Star

We are THRILLED to announce that Christopher Walken will be a very special guest star in "Eyes On You" during the run of Song and Dance! Check out the video for a sampling of his dance moves.

more posts about Song & Dance
| Buy Tickets to Song & Dance